What is Pet Therapy? - History, Facts & Benefits

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  • 0:01 Pet Therapy
  • 0:58 Quick History
  • 1:43 Pet Therapy Benefits
  • 4:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Devin Kowalczyk

Devin has taught psychology and has a master's degree in clinical forensic psychology. He is working on his PhD.

A brief look into the basics of what pet therapy, or animal assistant therapy, is and how it works. Specific attention is given to why this type of therapy is effective and in what instances it may be helpful.

Pet Therapy

We can't talk about therapy if we don't first talk about people. Humans are social creatures, with brain functions that we intuitively knew for centuries but have only begun to recently understand scientifically in modern times. Take, for instance, the power of touch. People who have come out of surgery report faster healing, fewer infections and lower pain medication needs. This is why prayer circles appear to be so effective - people holding hands. Furthermore, the phrase 'healing hands' has its root in this phenomenon.

This same benefit, and others, can come from interacting with animals. Animal-assisted therapy, also known as pet therapy, is a group of therapeutic techniques facilitated by animals. There is no specific animal used, but dogs, cats and horses are most common.

Quick History

Animal assisted therapy was first pioneered in the mid-1800s. It was found that a small pet could aid in the long-term care for the sick, the chronically ill and those who did not respond well to treatment. This likely resulted from chance observations, since the medical and sanitary code of the time was far looser than it is now.

Human history is actually filled with animal companions. Back into the Stone Age, humans first began to domesticate animals for use as hunting companions. However, it isn't far-fetched to believe that Wolf the hunting dog would come into the cave and share the communal bed. There is an emotional reward and safety feature to having an animal companion.

Pet Therapy Benefits

Besides being fuzzy, the three animals primarily used are mammals, which means they have the same receptors in their brains for touch. Cats, dogs, horses and people all respond positively to physical attention, which will cause us and the animals to release dopamine and other calming neurotransmitters. The 'so what' of this is that there are some people who cannot self-calm. The first group we are going to discuss are the anxieties and stress disorders.

Furthermore, animals serve as a powerful force in our life. Many mental health workers will recommend patients adopt animals for numerous benefits. Looking at purely psychological reasons (since there are numerous health benefits as well), a person with an animal feels safer. Animals being around in a therapeutic form allow a person to get out of their own head.

Think about something stressful. What do you do with your hands? Petting an animal can provide the benefit of having something else to focus on while opening up. An animal can also be a form of safe touch because the person is in control. This is important dealing for those with trauma, particularly abuse.

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